> Peteris Vasks [BK]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Peteris VASKS ( b. 1946)
Three Poems by Czeslaw Milosz* (1994) (World Premier Recording)
Zemgale # (1988) (text: Mara Zalite)
Mate saule (Mother Sun) * (1985) (text: Janis Peters)
Madrigals # (1975) (text: Claude de Pontoux)
Litene # (1993) Ballad for 12 voiced chorus to a text by Uldis Berzins
Dona nobis pacem # (1996)
Latvian Radio Choir
Sigvards Klava #
Kaspars Putnins *
Aivars Kalejs (organ) (Track 9)
BIS-CD 1145 [66.11]


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In recent years, Peteris Vasks has become something of a cult figure in the world of contemporary music, allied to such figures as Arvo Pärt, John Tavener and Gorecki, and has had the dubious honour of joining the band of ‘Holy Minimalists’, who have provided the jaded modern man with spiritual uplift, when not going about the business of mammon: however, this is really a rather simplistic verdict of a composer, who can stand on his own, without being shuffled into convenient pigeon-holes. Despite not having composed prolifically over the years, works such as Cantabile for string orchestra have been given wide coverage. Cantabile has been available intermittently on several recordings: I do have an old Conifer Classics release with this work, coupled with the Cor Anglais Concerto, the striking Message of 1982, the Musica Dolorosa, and the ‘Hymn to the Latvian People’, the stirring Lauda of 1986, which concerned itself with the fight to overthrow Soviet domination at that time. Indeed, much of his music is innately nationalistic in tone, reflecting the work of Jean Sibelius and others in the struggle for independence from Russian tyranny. (At present, this valuable introduction to a key Latvian composer is out of the catalogue, and one hopes that it will resurface at some point in the future: Conifer CDCF 236). In the meantime, this new release, an overview of his choral music over the last twenty five years could not be more welcome, and shows to best effect his surefooted technique in this field.

Vasks was born in the town of Aizpute, Latvia in 1946, where his father was a minister, and consequently a distinct religious air dominates much of his output. He studied the double-bass at the Riga Conservatoire, and went on to the Lithuanian Academy at Vilnius, where he graduated with honours, then returned to the Latvian capital to take lessons in composition from Velentius Utkins for the next five years, funding his studies by playing bass in the Orchestra of the State Opera. The earliest couple of pieces recorded for this disc date from this period in the composer’s life, but are more than mere juvenilia, or study pieces. Perhaps Madrigals, dashed off on one afternoon may appear the weaker of the two works given from this time, but it is an accomplished piece, for all of its three minutes length, written out with aleatoric features, suggesting that an underlying folk music element is present in so much of the works on this disc. But if this may be regarded as an early student essay in Vasks’ career, then Mater saule (Mother Sun), written in the same year, is little short of a miniature masterpiece: setting a text by Janis Peters, it evokes nature, sunrise and the beauty of the Latvian countryside, employing what Vasks has described as ‘white diatonicism’ to striking effect. Once again the inherent nationalism of the piece is obvious, and as Vasks' music began to become more widely disseminated, the authorities took a dim view of such blatant patriotism, and for several years his works were proscribed by the State.

By the end of the 1980s, the movement for freedom of the Latvian people was gaining momentum, and this general desire for autonomy was reflected in the work of the playwrights and composers of the time. By concerning themselves with the struggle for independence, these artists risked censure by the Government, and at various times found themselves rounded up and incarcerated for their beliefs. Vasks and other composers took to writing scores, at first glance with little relevance to current issues, often with historical themes, but with coded messages to those who could read them, supporting the goals of the rebellion against the Russian oppressors. Such a work was the setting of the poet Mara Zalite, Zemgale. While this work may have appeared to concern itself with the destruction of this prosperous Latvian region in the 13th Century by the invading Germans, to many, the parallelism of this disastrous event in history, and more recent events after the Second World War, when many Latvians were driven into exile in Lithuania, by the advancing Russians, was all too real given the international situation at the time. Zalite’s poem forces the reader to confront the likelihood of fresh conflict with the aggressor: do we stand and fight, or do we capitulate in the face of the enemy, and become a displaced people once again? Vasks’ importance in the shaping of things to come cannot be underestimated, and the Zalite setting was part of the unfolding developments, as the mighty Soviet Union was laid low, and Latvian independence was secured.

As much can really be said, too, of the Litene of 1993, a Ballad for 12 voices, a setting of Uldis Berzins in two parts, recounting the events of 1941, when Russian forces rounded up Latvian officers in the idyllic woodland of Litene, shot most of them or carted the rest off to Siberia. This is really a call to arms, or a warning never to let this happen again, and produces some of Vasks’ most strident and angry music.

To conclude, we have some of Vasks most recent choral music, with the Three Poems by Czeslaw Milosz of 1994, and a Latin setting of the Dona nobis pacem for voices and organ of 1996. Milosz was born in Lithuania in 1911, and became a socialist, and a member of the resistance to occupying German forces during World War II, composing, translating and editing several clandestine works, including ‘Invincible Song’ of 1942. After the end of the war, he was feted by the new communist government in Poland, and became a diplomat, but quickly became disillusioned with the regime in Warsaw, and defected, first to Paris, and then to the USA, where he joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley: little wonder, then, that Vasks was attracted to set some of his poetry to music, given that here was an intellectual who was forced to flee from the German army, and then from Poland, to seek exile in the West. It always comes back to the age old conundrum of whether to capitulate, to flee, or to resist. The Milosz Songs were originally set in Polish, and Vasks considered having them translated into Latvian, so it was surprising that the final setting was actually in English, but as the first performance was given by the excellent Hilliard Ensemble in London in 1995, it made sense that the individual voices of that band were used to idiomatic effect in their own language, and it is in this format that the Latvian Radio Choir perform it on this recording. It is all nostalgia and wistfulness, and very engaging. The last piece of Vasks on this recording is the Dona nobis pacem, especially commissioned by the performers: the original version was for choir and string orchestra, but we hear the reduction with organ, a profound hope for the future of mankind, the first work that Vasks had considered setting in the origin Latin: ‘grant us thy peace, O Lord’.

The forces of the Latvian Radio Choir acquit themselves admirably in this recording, ably conducted by Sigvards Kjava and Kaspars Putnins: perhaps their intonation in the Milosz piece was not as precise nor as idiomatic as on the original English performance, but as this was the setting of a Lithuanian by a Latvian, we may forgive the occasional infelicity. All in all, this is a very useful survey of an original talent.

Ben Killeen


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